UPDATE March 15th, 2023 – Seed Quality: Start Preparing for Planting NOW ! (Collins, Edmisten, & Foote)

Posted On March 15, 2023— Written By
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This article may be considered lengthy by some folks, but it will only cost you a little time. However, the costs of not putting it into practice, could be substantial! Every year is different, and the large majority of cotton seed has been of high quality. The number of low quality seed lots or stop sales have historically been very low and infrequent, but if planted, they could have impacted several thousand acres. Therefore, although the large majority of seed has historically had great quality, not all seed is of stellar quality, hence the reason to have your seed tested by NCDA&CS prior to planting.

As of earlier this week, the NCDA&CS Cotton Seed Quality Testing Program has already tested approximately 280 seed lots for planting in 2023, with more in queue or in progress. Similar to years past, they are reporting good to excellent quality for most seed lots, with the occasional low cool germ. The primary goals of this program are to provide transparency, so that growers can not only know the quality of the seed they purchase, but also to make better planting decisions during periods of suboptimal planting weather, through the testing by an unbiased 3rd party (NCDA&CS) who follows a stringent national protocol for evaluating both warm and cool germ. Another goal of this program is to test as many seed lots as possible, and it is to the benefit of all parties involved (especially you, as a grower) to have seed tested by NCDA&CS with test results available before planting begins.

Don’t Assume Your Seed Will Automatically Be Tested: Proudly, our NCDA&CS Inspectors work very hard and diligently to ensure that this program is run smoothly, not to impede downstream seed treatment and ultimately, planting, all the while testing as many seed lots that they are able to intercept as they enter NC. These inspectors can only test seed that they know about, through prior notifications from each of the seed companies (as the program was designed and originally intended), seed that they just happen to find during their inspections at various retailer warehouses, or from notifications from growers. Given that this program remains voluntary/non-mandatory, it is YOUR responsibility, as the grower and end-user, to ensure your seed is tested well in advance of planting.

Our observations over the past few years suggests that many growers: 1. assumed that all seed lots, including the seed they purchased, would have been tested by NCDA at some point, and therefore they didn’t need to do anything unless they experienced emergence problems, and 2. assumed that NCDA results for warm and cool germ would be the same or similar to the values provided by their seed company or dealer (which are commonly done internally or at Mississippi State’s Seed Lab). Both are false assumptions.

For the first false assumption, in some years, NCDA inspectors found nearly as many seed lots with NO prior notification as ones that DID have prior notification. There are several ways that non-notification of seed arrival can occur, including movement of seed across state lines at the retailer level, of which the seed company would not be aware, but regardless, do NOT assume that NCDA knows about your seed lots that you purchased. This requires action to be taken by YOU, as the grower, to ensure that your seed has been tested, which will be discussed later. This also requires additional time if your seed is to be treated downstream, and/or if you want the NCDA test results prior to planting, which is the only way to make appropriate planting decisions. To ensure your seed is tested, timely communication with their dealer/retailer and the seed company in necessary. DON’T WAIT until a week or two before planting to do this.

For the second false assumption, in the large majority of cases over the past few years, if the seed company values for warm and cool germ were good, NCDA test results agreed. Occasionally, there was a discrepancy, and retests are conducted. If the retest again suggests a large variation in quality, these are the situations that matter, especially if seed quality is poorer than advertised or labeled. Therefore, do NOT assume that seed company results for warm/cool germ are equal to that of NCDA. We are in NO way suggesting that the seed company’s, or the Mississippi State’s Seed Lab values for warm and cool germ are misleading or false, but rather the NCDA tests are likely much more recently collected, or at the least, tested closer to planting time and likely more predictive of field performance. Tests conducted elsewhere have no merit in any seed complaints or arbitration, nor are the results guaranteed to agree with the more recent NCDA tests. Therefore, you need to ensure that the seed you purchase has been tested by NCDA, with results available preferably prior to planting. This also requires action to be taken by YOU.

Official versus Service Samples: There are two types of samples for which cottonseed can be collected and tested by NCDA. Official samples are regulatory samples collected by NCDA Inspectors from multiple bags or bulk containers that have NOT been opened for any reason prior to testing, per a stringent protocol that they must follow. Once a bag or container is opened by anyone other than an NCDA Inspector, even for downstream seed treatment, the samples can no longer be considered “Official”. Official samples are the only ones that can be used in seed complaints or arbitration through NCDA if you experience emergence, vigor, or stand establishment problems where seed quality is suspected to be poor or not as advertised. These samples must be collected by NCDA Inspectors, therefore we/you/your consultant/your county agent can NOT collect or submit a sample to be qualified as “Official”.

Service samples can be collected by NCDA Inspectors or anyone else besides NCDA Inspectors, and/or are collected from bags/containers that have already been opened or when the seed has already been treated downstream. Once a bag or container seal is opened, the chain of custody is broken or cannot otherwise be established. Service samples still provide the same information as Official (regulatory) samples, which is pertinent information that you need to make adequate planting decisions, but they do NOT hold any merit in seed complaints or arbitration through NCDA if you experience problems. Both types of samples provide equally useful information needed to make the best planting decisions, but only Official samples can be used in arbitration if quality issues arise or are suspected. It is in your best interest to have an Official sample on file for your seed lots in the NCDA Cotton Seed Quality Database, but a service sample can also provide equally important information for planting decisions. Inspectors must collect samples from multiple bags, therefore you can’t simply leave one bag unopened to suffice for an Official sample through NCDA testing.

Service samples (those collected by anybody other than NCDA inspectors), should be sent to NCDA&CS Seed Lab, 1060 Mail Service center, Raleigh, NC 27699-1060216 (if using the US Postal Service) or to NCDA&CS Seed Lab, 216 West Jones Street, Raleigh, NC, 27603 (if using other shipping companies). The sample size should be at least 1,500 to 2,000 seeds or approximately ½ lb. maximum. Store seed and samples in a cool dry place and remember that seed is sensitive and should be treated as such. See the following website for information about seed sampling guidelines. Please label each sample bag by variety and lot # and include a Seed Test Request Form. Shipping seed samples to the lab is the fastest way to get your seed tested; however, if you cannot ship your samples contact Kathy Bowers at kathy.bowers@ncagr.gov or 919-707-3756 to arrange for an inspector to meet you at an agreed upon location. When sending a service sample, you MUST specify that you want BOTH warm and cool germ conducted on the form for your sample. Otherwise, only warm germ will be evaluated.

Logistics: For things to flow properly and for this badly needed information to be on-hand prior to planting, substantial TIME is needed. In other words, waiting until 2 weeks prior to planting to begin thinking about this, making phone calls, or trying to source this information is FAR too late in the game. Proudly, our NCDA Inspectors and the NCDA Seed Lab are committed to this program and work tirelessly to make it work smoothly for all involved, but they don’t have unlimited resources and they cannot perform miracles either. For 2023 in particular, NCDA&CS may be short-staffed in some areas, therefore growers need to do their part to help in this process.

The warm/cool germs tests require 12 days to be completed. That’s just for the test itself. Now consider the travel time for the inspectors to get to the warehouse where your seed arrives, given the fact that they are getting called to multiple dealers’ warehouses simultaneously from all over the state. Consider the time required for collecting samples per their stringent protocol, the packaging/handling of these samples, the shipment time to the NCDA Seed Lab, the current potential delays we’re experiencing in the shipping industry, the time needed for sorting and preparing these samples, the space limitations within the germinators, and the time required to evaluate the test results, which are both quantitative and qualitative. Now imagine how all of the NCDA personnel are trying their best to accommodate every cotton grower in NC. Additionally, your dealer needs time to downstream treat your seed prior to planting, if you choose to have your seed treated locally. In short, initiating your responsibilities as a grower in early April is FAR too late. Your responsibilities are the easiest ones of all, and they should begin NOW.

Your Roles and Responsibilities as a Grower: Your responsibilities, as a grower, are by far the simplest of anyone’s involved in this program, and it is all designed to benefit you. A little effort on your part can go a long way in reaping the value of this program. Below are your responsibilities:

  1. Make sure you are on our newsletter list, or receive our newsletters from your county agent, on social media platforms or elsewhere. There will be multiple reminders about this program, and in each of the Planting Conditions newsletters, there will be a link to the NCDA Cotton Seed Quality Database. This database can also be found on our NCSU Extension Cotton Portal website, under “Calculators and Decision Aids” on the left-side toolbar or directly at the NCDA Cotton Seed Quality Database.
  2. Make your variety decisions reasonably early, and commit to that purchase. The results of the NC On-Farm Cotton Variety Evaluation Program and NCSU OVT were discussed during our winter county cotton meetings, can also be found in the NCSU Cotton Variety Performance Calculator which can also be found on the NCSU Extension Cotton Portal under “Calculators and Decision Aids”. Secondly, decide what proportion of your seed will be treated upstream or downstream, so that subsequent plans can be made with your dealer.
  3. Notify both your seed company representative and your local dealer that you wish to have an Official sample (or Service sample, if you prefer) collected by NCDA for all of the seed that you will purchase and that you want the results available prior to when you intend to begin planting. This communication needs to be done NOW, not later, but you will also need to communicate frequently with your dealer or seed company on progress towards this goal from now until planting time. In addition, if your seed is to be treated downstream by your local dealer, they need to know this so that they can plan accordingly as well, and also to ensure that samples are collected by Inspectors before downstream treatment begins. Time is needed to downstream treat seed, so it’s only fair to provide your dealer with ample notice of your wishes. You can request that your dealer contacts NCDA to inform the Inspectors of the arrival of your seed on your behalf, or you can inform the Inspectors yourself. Frequent communication is needed on all sides to avoid any hiccups. Point being….DON’T WAIT, communicate NOW, and frequently from this point forward.
  4. As soon as your dealer can provide this information, or as soon as your seed arrives at your dealer’s warehouse or to your shop, document all pertinent information for each seed lot you purchased. This is as simple as taking a picture of the tag on your seed bags. The most important piece of information is the Lot number. Make sure NCDA knows about it, has collected samples from it, and access the NCDA Cotton Seed Quality Database to view the results. Other important information would include seed size (number of seed per lb), seed treatment, origin, etc.
  5. Access the NCDA Cotton Seed Quality Database and document the results for warm and cool germ for your lot numbers. Use this information in concert with the NCSU Cotton Planting Conditions Calculator to make the best decisions possible. This calculator is also accessible on the NCSU Extension Cotton Portal under “Calculators and Decision Aids”. If the database suggests that your lot number has not yet had a sample collected, contact NCDA right away. Remember that bags/containers can NOT be opened and the seed can NOT already be treated downstream for it to be considered an Official sample. A Service sample is still possible and necessary if bags have already been opened or if the seed has already been treated downstream. When accessing the NCDA Cotton Seed Quality Database, the first step is to set up your own username and password. This should be done now, but write this information down so that you can remember it and use it later when things become busy during planting. Once you’re logged in, scroll over the Seed Reports” tab across the top toolbar, and in the drop-down menu, choose “Cotton Test Results” (do NOT select “Cotton”). At this point, enter your lot numbers exactly as is printed on the bag. Simply click the blue “Search” button, and the database will list the test results for that lot number, or will indicate whether a sample has been collected and the test is underway, or if the lot number was not found. If access to technology is a challenge for you, you are welcome to contact your county agent who can easily assist you in this.

Why is This Important for You?:  It will be really easy to tell how many people read this article to this point, come planting season. Bottom line, if we are called to help you with an emergence, vigor, or stand establishment issue, the first thing we will ask for is the NCDA Cotton Seed Quality Test results. We will always try to help you to the best of our ability, but without NCDA test results, there isn’t much we can do. This program brings a great deal of value to producers in many ways. Official samples provide the most value as they can be used in complaints/arbitration, but Service samples also help with planting decisions. In cases where seed quality may be less than ideal but still legal for sale, these test results will only help you if you have the results on hand prior to planting so that you can make the best planting decisions possible. The bottom line is seed is a huge investment, and planting poor quality seed, although rare, does happen and is even more costly. So, the question quickly becomes “why NOT have it tested by a trusted source, and know what you are buying?”